Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots

Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Oneworld Publications, pbk, 352pp, 1 78074 749 1, £7.99

Note: the version reviewed here has been amended from the original US publication to include a wealth of detail from the UK economy.

Robots are coming to take away jobs at all levels of the economy. Mass unemployment is inevitable, so how will people live? ‘In my view the most effective solution is likely to be some form of basic income guarantee’ (p256), says Martin Ford, author, and a Californian technology entrepreneur. Has he fallen for the Lump of Labour Fallacy? Economists would point out that new jobs have always been created in other parts of the economy despite repeated waves of job-destroying technologies. [1] Even so, this is the ‘Business Book of The Year 2015’ for the Financial Times.

Probably the most useful and informative part of this book relates to the technology of the robots that are replacing the jobs. A series of chapters describes the way in which software developments, automation, Artificial Intelligence, or to use the currently fashionable term, ‘robots’, are taking over. There are software apps for writing reports, for translating from one language to another, for making decisions about employees.  The technology for driverless cars and trucks is well known. Professional activities like legal advice, tax consultancy and accounting can be largely replaced, or even off-shored. This all threatens the skilled white-collar jobs.

Automating jobs out of existence has not all been plain sailing. When human-machine collaboration is developed, lots of expert systems, even when they out-perform stand-alone experts, are not used because of resistance by the professionals. In university-level education great hopes has been invested in MOOCs—Massive On-line Open Courses. Many good units have been produced, but the idea of replacing full accredited degree courses has faltered on the validation of course certificates. In healthcare, especially eldercare, there is a huge and fast-expanding industry still heavily dependent on human workers, but it is proving difficult to invent effective robots to cater for the needs of the elderly. Despite these setbacks, the author is confident that solutions will be found and the jobs will go.

The case for Basic Income

If robotisation is leading to widespread job destruction, then a Basic Income Guarantee scheme is the only way of ensuring everyone has enough to live, according to the author. He takes it for granted that leftist welfare-statist socialists are the natural supporters of Basic Income, but points out that even right-wing economists like Hayek and Friedman have also advocated a form of Basic Income.

Even so, accepting the need for BI may not be easy for the business-men readership. Basic Income – ‘free money’ – would undermine the incentive to accept jobs. Of course, BI can also be used to boost effective demand for the products of industry, by making up for the lack of income of the jobless consumers. Enterprise too would get a shot in the arm as the safety net of BI should encourage many more to have a go. New ideas for services and goods can flourish.

This is an interesting take on BI which will be presented to an audience of hard-nosed business people, not the usual sociologists and other academics. Seeing BI as a form of Enterprise Allowance should play well to the ‘stand on your own two feet’ ethic.

This book gives a good account of the ways robots are being developed to replace many jobs, especially the white-collar and professional jobs. It is encouraging to see how this businessman-turned-author follows his own logic and accepts the case for Basic Income.



[1] I wrote an article about LoLF ten years ago for this publication. See: